Judge awards $687K to religious scientist fired for refusing COVID-19 vaccine

A U.S. District judge has ordered an insurance company to pay damages to an employee it terminated for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine on religious grounds.

The jury found Blue Cross and Blue…

A U.S. District judge has ordered an insurance company to pay damages to an employee it terminated for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine on religious grounds.

The jury found Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Tennessee (BCBST) refused to make “reasonable accommodation” to Tanja Benton, a data scientist who was employed at BCBST for more than 16 years. 

Benton refused the vaccine over “sincerely held religious belief,” the jury decided, and BCBST failed to show how accommodating her beliefs would create undue hardship for the insurance giant.

Benton was awarded $687,240, including of $177,240 in back pay, $10,000 in compensatory damages and $500,000 in punitive damages. 

In the fall of 2021, the company terminated 41 customer service employees for refusing the shot on religious grounds, said the Chattanooga Times Free Press. 

However, Benton’s case was unique, as she worked from home for a year and a half, and spent only 1% of her time with clients. And she contended even that time wasn’t necessary.  

Benton, who opposes abortion, said the use of fetal stem cell lines in the vaccine’s development meant getting the vaccine “would not only defile her body but also anger and dishonor God.”  

Others argue the COVID-19 vaccines only use distant stem cell lines from fetuses aborted in the 1970s, but don’t use the fetus cells themselves. 

Yet leading Catholic scholars at the Ethics and Public Policy Institute said in March 2021: 

“We think it a mistake to say both that these vaccines are morally permissible to use and yet that some ought to be preferred to others. There appears to us to be no real distinction between the vaccines in terms of their connection to an abortion many decades ago, and thus the moral starting point is one of equivalence.” 

Benton’s attorney argued, “According to the United States Supreme Court, ‘Title VII does not demand mere neutrality with regard to religious practices – that they be treated no worse than other practices. Rather, it gives them favored treatment… Title VII requires otherwise-neutral policies to give way to the need for an accommodation.’”  

BCBST claimed its mandatory vaccine policy was required by law, but the only such requirement was a presidential executive order which the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals halted the same month BCBST was terminating employees.  

Several weeks later, the state of Tennessee also banned the termination of employees for their refusal to get vaccinated against COVID-19. 

BCBST is unsure if it will appeal the Benton decision, which may have set a precedent for other lawsuits regarding terminations linked to vaccine refusals.   

“We’re disappointed by the decision,” said Dalya Qualls White, senior vice president and chief communications officer at BCBST. “We believe our vaccine requirement was the best decision for our employees and members, and we believe our accommodation to the requirement complied with the law.” 

Meanwhile, James Abernathy, Heather Click and Kerrie Ingle have filed a class action lawsuit against BCBST over the same issue.  

“[BCBST] instituted a pattern and practice of denying religious accommodations to the entire class of those who requested accommodations based on their sincerely held religious beliefs, irrespective of such person’s position, accommodations requested, religion practiced, or any other differentiating factor,” says the lawsuit.  

Local media asked BCBST if it accommodated any religious exemptions related to the COVID-19 vaccine, but the company did not respond.  

The Tennessee Supreme Court has also scheduled hearings in Smith v. BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, where BCBST terminated an employee in alleged retaliation for the employee emailing a local lawmaker about the company’s vaccine policies.